The Writings of F. A. Harper
AUGUST 01, 1979 by PAUL L. POIROT
What was written as "Introduction" to The Writings of F. A. Harper may also serve as a review of this two-volume memorial edition just published by The Institute for Humane Studies, Inc., 1177 University Drive, Menlo Park, California 94025.
Dr. F. A. (Baldy) Harper left a position as Professor of Marketing at Cornell University to join the staff of The Foundation for Economic Education from 1946 through 1958. He helped to found and served as Executive Director and then as President of The Institute for Humane Studies until his death in 1973.
I would not push the illiberal notion than any individual is like any other. It is because of our differences that liberty is so vital. But Baldy did adhere to the guiding rule of Socrates, "Know thyself." He believed with Socrates that goodness is based on knowledge, wickedness on ignorance. Like Socrates, he soughttruth all his life, in ways that attracted young scholars. By the Socratic method of a series of carefully directed questions, he would encourage the other person to find out the truth for himself.
In these collected writings of F. A. Harper, concerned with liberty in the broadest sense, are to be found some of his conclusions. But the reader will also fmd throughout his works a series of carefully directed questions. For as Judge Learned Hand observed, "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right." I believe that is the spirit in which Baldy would have us pursue his search—a never-ending search for the truth about liberty.
How does that search begin? Perhaps best with his premise as to the nature and destiny of man:
In the design of the universe, everything is subject to certain natural laws. . . . A person’s capacity to perceive the nature of these natural laws, which rule his being, is limited by his intelligence or powers of instinctive conduct; his beliefs, in this respect, are both his privilege and his responsibility; he is free to choose his sources of information as guides in his search for truth, and he is personally responsible for the wisdom of that choice and for the resulting conclusions; he will know that no person, not even himself, has any direct and certain line of communication with the sources of truth; all conclusions carry a corresponding uncertainty no matter who holds them; he knows that while he cannot avoid acting on the basis of some belief, these beliefs must ever be held subject to change as further evidence or new reasoning becomes available; but always he is obligated, by honesty, to believe and act in accordance with truth as he then sees it.
That premise as to the truth about liberty is broad enough to encompass a lifetime search in any direction. And this list of some of his titles illustrates Baldy’s wide range into the moral, social, political and other aspects of the subject:
"Society under God"
"Morals and Liberty"
"In Search of Peace"
"The Disharmony of World Unity"
"Fruits of Intolerance"
"Blessings of Discrimination"
However, his specialty was the search for and promotion of a greater understanding of free market economics and its importance to the individual who would be free. "Economic liberty pervades the entire problem of liberty and is an absolute requisite to liberty in general."
Textbooks may help us, but few of us come by our discoveries of truths in anything like a logical textbook arrangement. At some moment, a better idea displaces an assumption or a myth that had formerly occupied one’s mind. And many of the shorter articles assembled here are shots fired at popular myths. But they are shots from the orderly and well-disciplined mind of a scholar and teacher. Let me share, then, the steps that I believe Baldy may have taken—the points he seemed to stress as most important—in his study and exposition of free market economics.
Undoubtedly of first importance is the concept of private property—"the economic extension of the person." The point is stressed throughout his writings, but comes most clearly, as it should, in his latest discussion, "Property and Its Primary Form":
As I now see the matter of property and ownership, the first person singular is the primary form from which all other forms of property arise. It is the prior and superior form. . . . This view of self-ownership as primary property, from which all other property arises as derivatives . . . rests on the subjective evaluation of worth, with all market prices determined in the market as with other things of worth.
So, in economics, one starts with the freedom and dignity of the individual human being and his natural right to his own decisions and their consequences. Because he is his own man, the fruits of his peaceful actions are his property—and his responsibility. With that as their premise, competing individuals can peacefully determine "what is mine and what is thine."
Once the concept or institution of private property is accepted, human beings in their infinite variability, and with their respective degrees of skill and talent, are in position for the next step of specialization in various productive efforts. Until a man can own what he produces, he is unlikely to produce much beyond his immediate needs. But if the product is his property, then he will strive to produce enough to meet future needs and begin to think how he might trade some of those savings for other goods or services.
So begins another step in free market economics, the process of competition and cooperation through voluntary exchange of private property. Exchange, yes, but at what rate of exchange, how much of mine for thine, at whose price? At the market price, suggests Baldy, if the objectives of the participants are to maintain peaceful relations and to maximize productivity in the light of the always scarce and limited resources available.
What a man brings with him to market as his own property affects what he will be able to bid for the property of others. Some have their skills or their productive labor to sell, some have tools or land or buildings or other savings to offer, some have new and better ideas for combining labor and tools and other scarce resources more efficiently to serve consumers.
Where more than two or three are gathered together in a market place, each interested in selling one or many items and in buying one or many items, some one or more of those items of commerce will be put to use as money to get away from the limitations of barter—to facilitate exchange. How much money, of what size or shape or other condition? Leave such matters to the market—to the willing buyers and sellers in the market.
Once traders have found a satisfactory medium of exchange, then market exchange rates will be expressed in money prices, and these market prices afford businessmen a means of economic calculation or business accounting—a way of knowing their profit or loss.
Out of this seeming bedlam of bids and offers, from individuals with various and ever-changing supplies of goods and services and demands for other things, emerges a series of market prices. Workers competing for jobs and employers competing for laborers set the pattern of wages for different kinds of work. Savers and borrowers compete and cooperate to find the rate of interest that will best serve their more urgent requirements. Market prices help individuals decide how much of what to consume and how much to save and invest in tools and raw materials and other factors of further production. Profits and losses ultimately disclose which competitors have succeeded or failed and guide them and others into the most fruitful and efficient lines of productivity.
Finally, but by no means the least of the services the market affords, is education. It affords a measure of the worth of experience, of schooling, of learning. It tells the cost of buildings, of books, of hired teachers, of various educational facilities. It lets the individual (the parent of the child) choose what he can afford to spend for greater wisdom in relation to his other needs.
Were Baldy to survey this humble attempt to outline his views of the free market economy, he might conclude that the attempt has raised more questions than it answers. And I could only answer that I learned some of that procedure from him. But, hopefully, the attempt may help alert the present and future students of F. A. Harper to some of the main points of his free market philosophy.
Unfortunately, ours is not an ideal free market economy. Not all men are always peaceful, tolerant and wise, however good their intentions. Some will resort to coercion to gain advantage and to rule over others. They will turn to government to tax some and subsidize others, to regulate and control people "for their own good," to dispense "charity," to prevent failure, to penalize success, to invent a magic money machine, to apply rent and wage and price supports or ceilings and thus refute the vital signals of market pricing, to manage the rearing and the education of the young, to interfere with the free trade of free men in countless other ways.
Much of Baldy’s life was devoted to exposure of these frustrations of the free market economy and these limitations on freedom. And that is a never-ending task. Fortunately for us, we have his record and example of the ideal of a free man toward which to strive.
Volume I (453 pages) and Volume II (611 pages) of The Writings of F. A. Harpe are available from:
The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc. Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 10533.